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In Search of the Root of All Evil: Is There a Concept of ‘Evil’ in the Hebrew Bible?

Aren Max Wilson-Wright

University of Zurich

The Hebrew Bible has long figured prominently in discussions about the nature and origin of evil.  Biblical scholars, philosophers, and cultural critics alike trace the modern, Western concept of evil, defined as something like ‘intentional, superlative wickedness’, back to the Hebrew Bible.  In particular, Biblical scholars usually treat the Hebrew word raˤ as the translational and conceptual equivalent of English ‘evil’ (see inter alia the entries in the main Biblical Hebrew dictionaries BDB 948; HALOT 1250; see also Westermann 1994: 242–251). In this paper, by contrast, I will argue that the modern concept of ‘evil’ most likely did not exist in ancient Israel and that ‘evil’ is rarely—if ever—an appropriate rendering of Hebrew raˤ

I begin by showing that raˤ and its derivatives have a wider semantic range than their supposed English counterpart. They are regularly applied to objects that lack moral agency and cannot, according to the above definition, be considered evil. In Biblical Hebrew, rotten figs (ṭəˀēnîm rāˤôt; Jer 24:2), an abscessed tooth (šēn rāˤâ; Prov 25:19), a wild animal (ḥayyâ rāˤâ; Gen 37:20), and a downcast countenance (pānîm rāˤîm; Neh 2:2) can all be described as rāˤ.  These examples—and others like them—suggest that the Hebrew word raˤ possessed a series of overlapping meanings ranging from ‘harmful’ to ‘deficient’ when applied to objects without moral agency.  ‘Evil’ is not an appropriate translation in these circumstances.  But even when raˤ is predicated of moral agents such as humans and deities, it is unclear that it ever descends to the depths of immorality conjured by the modern English word ‘evil’.  This is particularly true when raˤ is associated with Yahweh, the patron deity of ancient Israel and the forerunner of the Judeo-Christian God. 

In many texts throughout the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh brings, does, or otherwise causes raˤ.  Isaiah 31:2, for example, states that Yahweh brings raˤ (way-yābēˀ rāˤ) against Judah and its Egyptian allies in the form of military defeat.  In this regard, Yahweh resembles other Classical and ancient Near Eastern divinities who dole out weal and woe in equal proportion.  Indeed, several texts in the Hebrew Bible treat the ability to both help and harm as the sine qua non of divinity.  In Jeremiah 10:5, the prophet instructs his audience not to be afraid of foreign idols because, unlike Yahweh, “they cannot do raˤ nor are they not able to do good” (kî-lō(ˀ) yārēˤû wə-gam-hêṭêb ˀên ˀotām).  Similarly, Genesis 3:5 indicates that deities were thought to know both “good and rāˤ” (yōdˤê ṭôb wā-rāˤ).  As these texts show, the ancient Israelites did not conceptualize Yahweh as omnibenevolent, even after he ascended to the position of sole divinity and lone guarantor of the moral order in the mid-6th century BCE.  This observation, in turn, has important consequences for both the interpretation of the word raˤ and the study of ‘evil’ in the Hebrew Bible.  Without a concept of supreme good, it seems unlikely that the biblical authors would have been able to conceptualize superlative wickedness and associate it with the word raˤ.   I conclude, therefore, that the concept of evil was most likely foreign to ancient Israel.

I will argue this position in detail in the paper that I submit for seminar participants to read. This will give SCS members ways to contemplate how ancient Israelite culture—which ultimately stands behind the Septuagint—grappled with identifying, describing and explaining events, conditions and forces affecting human beings to which in various periods in modern English-speaking culture we have applied the word ‘evil’.

Session/Panel Title

Translating Evil in Ancient Greek and Hebrew and Modern American Culture

Session/Paper Number

62.1

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